Here continues our sleepless expedition through the history and magic of British fairy, as navigated through the looking-glass of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Having introduced our Shining Folk, compiled recipes for salves and ointments to bestow second sight of Them, considered relationships between the Gentry and the Dead, and pondered on the baptism of animals, we come to some regard of the land of Faerie itself.
‘Lost Hope is no dream. It is the finest of my mansions.’
‘Fairy magic is seductive, Mr Strange. Because by its very nature it is instinctual, impulsive and unpremeditated. But the creature uses allegiances with the forces of nature within the Christian world, our world, not his. Ergo, his curse will not affect us here.’
By bell, by book, or by the light of a misplaced bargain, various characters of our dear novel find themselves in the realm of the Fae, in the House of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair – the kingdom of Lost Hope.
But what does it mean to fall out of the mortal world? What kind of tale will you weave from this fall? And, perhaps most importantly, will there be dancing?
In a peculiar contagion of glamour, to speak of Fairyland is, somewhat necessarily, to speak of our tales of Fairyland. And in unrolling these old maps sketched in storylines, we begin to chart the very topology of both Here and Other Places. So when Thomas the Rhymer, eponymous hero of the medieval romance, is first enchanted by the Queen of Fair Elfland and whisked away with her he is shown three ‘fairlies’ or roads out of the mortal realm. The first appears narrow and ‘thick beset wi thorns and briers’, however despite its appearance ‘That is the path of righteousness, / Tho after it but few enquire’: it is the path to Heaven. Conversely, the ‘braid braid road’ to Hell seems to look inviting and even idyllic, yet in truth ‘is the path of wickedness’. The third road is the way to Faerie. The Queen tells Thomas:
‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae’
The notion that these three worlds – all conceived of as metaphysically meaningful, theologically and soteriologically significant, and yet also somehow Otherly – might all be in some way connected, or equally accessible from the human world, reflects some fascinating coexistence of Christian cosmology and earlier folk beliefs. It also highlights that even conceived of as devilishly wicked, the Fair Folk were not conceived of as demons or denizens of Hell. Necessarily. They are most often a third order of sorts. In finding Fairyland, it is useful to know something of the surrounding metaphysical environs, both Upstairs and Downstairs.
From analysis of actual stories of admittance into fairyland, like that of True Thomas, we can continue along our own King’s Roads towards considering the history of tales about fairyland. It is here Ruth B. Bottigheimer gives us a useful frame for stitching out our impressions of the structures of such stories:
In general, early – that is, medieval or early modern – tales about fairyland are built on a strong Celtic underlay onto which English, French, German, and Italian authors grafted large amounts of indigenous fairy belief. The most significant aspect of tales about fairyland, however, is that they depict two parallel worlds, a fairy universe and the human world. The human worlds in tales about fairyland are more or less familiar with the exception of occasional encounters with fairies, with people being born, living happy or unhappy lives, and dying. The fairy universe, on the other hand, differs dramatically from the human world. Subject to different laws…’ [Ruth B. Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales: A New History (State University of New York Press: Albany, 2009), 15.]
In this realm, acts carry different consequences, different valences net and interrelate dreamlike results, mythic weight presses in at unusual instantiations. And yet, in the face of uncanny meanings attributed to actions, the style of the fairyworld – the manners and dress of its inhabitants – seems informed by the society of the human realm.
‘The landscape of the lower spirit world, and the appearance and lifestyle of its inhabitants, reflects the cultural origin of its human visitors. In fairyland we find the fairies and the dead dressed in waistcoats and hoods, sitting at tables illuminated by candles, and drinking ale and eating bread…’ [Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, 147]
Such accounts of entering Fairyland to a courtly occasion were common enough to be mentioned in king James VI and I’s notes in his demonological tract: ‘transported with the Phairie to such a hill, which opening, they went in’, usually meeting ‘a King and Queen of Phairie, of such a iolly court & train.’ [James VI, Daemonolgie, (Edinburgh, 1597), 74] In her encounters with the Shining Ones (or “Lowlanders” as these fairies preferred to be called), the cunning-woman Mary Parish reported being taken through a whole palace. From a little door in the side of a hill, she was ushered by two or three small beings down a winding path until they came to the palace proper:
‘The creatures led Mary through a number of courtyards, many paved with marble. After passing through several great rooms, they entered a most splendid chamber where two little persons sat at dinner under a canopy.’ [Frances Timbers, The Magical Adventures of Mary Parish: The Occult World of Seventeenth-century London (Truman State University Press: Kirksville, 2016), 42]
This couple is, naturally, the king and queen of the Lowlanders. One of the other significant characters that Parish meets is one Father Fryer, a fairy priest, ‘dressed somewhat like a Catholic friar in a cowl and a rough-spun woollen tunic tied at the waist with a rope belt’. [Timbers, Mary Parish, 43]. Time and time again, Timbers emphasises that the kingdom of the Lowlanders seems to parallel the arch political machinations of contemporary society – the Portuguese fairies engage in diplomatic talks with the English fairies, and courtly dramas of princely marriages and so on take up great significance in the dealings of Parish with the Lowlanders.
More particularly, we may observe an influence of the contemporary ala mode upon Fair Folk encounters in the difference between the Gentleman’s attire in his first conjuration and those of subsequent appearances, at least in the televised JS&MrN series. Apparently not having been called for some time, his foliage-esque garments sported in Lady to-be-Pole’s boudoir identify him by far earlier medieval standards; later these are replaced by the sartorial dress of high late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth society.
A story of the meeting – or, more often, crossing – of two parallel worlds often establishes a tension between those realms that creaks with a sort of narrative gravity. In which world, and by which standards of Nature, is our resolution to be sought? Botingheimer once more provides a simple analysis: ‘tales about fairyland and fairy tales are two very different kinds of stories (the first might have an unhappy ending, the second always has a happy ending) with very different centres of gravity (one including fairyland, the other in a world inhabited principally by human beings). [Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales, 16-17.] The very battle of wits between the Gentleman and the English magician(s) might be seen as a conflict over the kind of story in which they are participating.
In answer to the most important question – yes, there will be dancing. Dancing like devils. Emma Wilby notes that there are plenty of ‘early modern accounts in which elements of the stereotypical sabbath [of witches] merge seamlessly with elements of the stereotypical visit to fairyland… Experience in both places is characterized by feasting, drinking and making merry with a great company, presided over by one or more supernatural figures variously described as the Devil or the king or queen of the fairies and so on.’ [Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, 85]
The grand hierarchy of the Fae being present to the operator, privy to the echelons of high Faerie society. Interactions with fairies not only demonstrated a mirroring of contemporary political society, as Timbers seems eager to emphasise, but an opportunity to interact with a powerful court of a preternatural kingdom.
Of the merry-making of fairy courts, dancing seems particularly popular. The Scottish cunning-man Donald McIlmichal reported such in 1677. When travelling at night, ‘a great number of men and women within the hill quhair he entered having many candles lighted, and saw ane old man as seemed to have preference above the rest… And saw them all danceing about the light.’ [Minor White Latham, The Elizabethan Fairies (Columbia University Press: New York, 1930), 175]
Lost-Hope is entered both in (apparent) dream or ‘spirit’ initially, and nearer the end of our book in body. We might also distinguish the temptation of Stephen and the seizing of Arabella, deliberate acts of enticement and coercion, from Strange and Norrell’s rescue mission. The former begins at the very beck and call of the Gentlemen: poor Stephen is summoned by the ringing of the bell; Bella trammelled in dream logic of an especially devilish pact. In contrast, our Two English Magicians’ ingress is rather more of a breaking-and-entering or, if nothing was actually broken – save of course the thin gossamer gauntlet that veils and separates the mortal realm from Elfhame – at least trespass, a civil matter. I leave you however with a somewhat unexpected connection found when looking into such entry into Faerie itself.
‘Transition into the fairy world was believed to occur either ‘in body’ or ‘in spirit’. In the former case, the physical body either completely disappeared or was replaced with a fairy ‘stock’. Nairnshire witch Isobel Gowdie (1662), for example, claimed that when she and her companions travelled with fairies, they would
Flie away whair (evir we wold); and least our husbandis sould miss us out of our beddis, we put in a bosom, or a thrie (legged stoole beside thame) and say thyse over, ‘I LAY down this bosom (or stool) in THE DIVELLIS name, Let it not Steir.. (Quhill I) come again!’ And immediatlie it seimis a woman, besyd our husbandis.’
[Wilby, Cunning Folk, 101-2; quoting from Robert Pitcairn, Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland 1488-1624 (Bannatyne Club: Edinburgh, 1833): III, ii, 608]
While expressing some fundamental differences, this idea of a thing of wood being charmed to resemble a man’s wife I believe gives us some context for the oak-moss. Once again, fairyland and sabbat narratives diverge. Rather than a body-double temporarily employed to placate a husband’s worry while you fly upon the storm to sup with the Devil and learn maleficia, the oak-moss is more of a fool’s gold for which you trade your soul from grief and lose your beloved to Faerie forever. Worse, in the case of the Stranges, the oak-moss is the instrument – indeed, the sentence – of the logic and binding of a deal struck by one not only ignorant of the true extent or value of the pact, but unaware a bargain has been made at all.
Lost Hope holds her a dreaming prisoner in dusty Regency spectres and spectacle. It is a fairy ball of dazzling thought-eclipsing time-dilating nothing-but-bliss, in which we float and spin memoryless, dancing as endlessly as the inside of a fishbowl. Utterly unaware of our imprisonment, or those whom we bereave, is lost hope indeed.